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Among my recent revisions was a short short written in 2nd person. I initially wrote it in close 3rd person, but as much as I edited, I couldn’t get much beyond the surface of the character.  I kept hitting a wall.  When this happens, l will change names, verb tenses, point of view (POV), etc. to shake things loose in a story.  After a few paragraphs in 1st person, I knew it wasn’t going to work. It was almost as if the character was fighting me, refusing access.  That was when I changed the story to 2nd person POV.  I didn’t know if it would work or even what it would look like.  In fact, I fully expected to change the story back to 3rd person POV at the end of my experiment.

I’d thought the “you” in the narrative would create distance, but in fact, it had the opposite effect.  The “you” created a position where the character could not deflect, defend or lie to himself.  Author Nina Schuyler explains that 2nd person “also works when the narrator is having difficulty inhabiting the self.”

Once the point of view changed, an interesting domino-effect followed.  The voice became clearer, opportunities for access were created, and I could see where in the narrative it wasn’t true to the voice, so language opened up, followed by the rhythm and diction.

In researching journals to submit my newly revised, 2nd person POV, short short, I came across these submission guidelines from Subtropics:

A preponderance of the stories coming our way are written in first-person present tense; we are starting to grow weary of this perspective. Please keep this in mind.
• We are skeptical of the second person, though willing to be persuaded.

I find the first bullet point interesting.   I wonder if this is a trend other literary journals are seeing as well.

The second bullet point actually made me briefly question my decision to change my short short to 2nd person.  Their skepticism seems reflective of what Janet Burroway asserts in her book, “Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft”:

While it is unlikely that the second person will ever become a major mode of narration as the first and third person are, for precisely that reason you may find it an attractive experiment. (261)

I might have agreed a few years ago, but now it seems 2nd person POV has gained popularity, at least in short shorts or flash fiction.  I recently read a current issue of a college literary journal which included the winners and finalists of their annual short short contest.  I was surprised to find, out of the 10 finalists and winners published, 6 were in 2nd person.  I don’t know if that is because there are more writers using this POV or if more editors have become open to this experimental form.

So what exactly is 2nd person POV?   It is when the viewpoint character is identified as “you”.   We use it all the time when we talk, telling stories where “I” slips into “you” as a way to universalize an experience (Soehnlein n.p.).

Here the author assigns you, the reader, specific characteristics and reactions and thereby – assuming you go along with her characterization of you – pulls you deeper and more intimately into the story. (Burroway 261).

There are generally two types of 2nd person point of view:

1) “You” is used by the narrator to speak to the reader, in direct address.  This is actually a form of 1st person narration, such as in Abigail Thomas’ Safekeeping:

While you were alive the past was a live unfinished thing.  Like a painting we weren’t done with.  Like a garden we were still learning to tend. (5)

2) “You” as Reader-Turned-Character, in which the narrator uses the pronoun to speak for the reader, such as in David Foster Wallace’s “Forever Overhead”:

Happy Birthday.  Your thirteenth is important.  Maybe your first really public day.  Your thirteenth birthday is a chance for people to recognize that important things are happening to you for the past half year. (307)

The 2nd person often uses imperatives to express commands to the self:

Get out now and go past your parents, who are sunning and reading, not looking.  Forget your towel.  Stopping for the towel means talking, and talking means thinking.  (309)

You will see imperatives used more in the “how-to” type of story, such as Junot Diaz’s “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie” and “How to Become a Writer” by Lorrie Moore.  In “The Sincerest Form”, Nicholas Delbanco explains:

With this second person narrator and the imperative forms engendered by the “how-to” approach…the reader settles easily into that familiar, conversational use of “you”…the reader may even feel poised to become the protagonist of the story.  This has to do with the imperative mood: “you” are taking orders… (176)

My short short was not a “how-to”, so I chose to convert my verbs into imperatives sparingly and strategically.  I used imperatives only during key moments of the narrative, in order to reveal a truth the character, the “you”, found hard to face or articulate.

Burroway states that “the second person remains an idiosyncratic and experimental form, but it is worth mentioning because several contemporary authors have been attracted to its possibilities” (260).  More than just several.  Wikipedia has a list of “notable second person narratives”.  My personal favorites are:

Forever Overhead” by David Foster Wallace

How to Become a Writer” by Lorrie Moore

How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie” by Junot Diaz

How to Talk to a Hunter” by Pam Houston

Lectures on How You Never Lived“ by M. Evelina Galang

Leopard” by Wells Tower

Until Gwen” by Dennis Lehane

 So when you are looking to start or revise a short short, you might consider 2nd person point of view.  You may find it enhances or opens up particular elements of the piece such as voice, characterization, language.  And in the end, you may have a story compelling enough to overcome the skepticism of literary editors.

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